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Mailbag: Busy bye week for Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots have practices scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday during their playoff bye week, which gives them a chance to fine-tune some areas specific to themselves before focusing on their next opponent.

There are a few footballs in the air at this time:

1. We know the divisional-round game is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 10, with a 4:35 p.m. ET kickoff. The Colts, Bengals and Ravens are the possible opponents.

2. Director of player personnel Nick Caserio and quarterback Tom Brady have had notable adjustments to their contracts.

3. The Falcons and 49ers have asked permission to speak with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels about their head-coaching vacancies.

Let's get to this week's questions:

Q. Mike, the D has gotten much of the blame in recent years for failures, but if you look at the score of the playoff losses since 2007 it's been the offense that has underachieved. The offense has only scored more than 20 points one time in a playoff loss since 2007. Once teams take away Gronk and Edelman, who will be the go-to guy? -- Brett (Ashburn, Virginia)

A. Brett, I'd put receiver Brandon LaFell, tight end Tim Wright and the running game as your three answers, in no specific order. The point on Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman is fair, and reminds me of the Bill Belichick documentary from 2009 when Belichick talked about defenses taking away Randy Moss with a safety over the top and bracketing Wes Welker, and how the Patriots were basically cooked when those options were defended as such. When the Patriots' 2014 offense is at its best it has the threat of the running game to propel the attack, so if we want to pick a place to start, that would be my choice.

Q. Hi Mike. The two major concerns I have going forward into the playoffs is the offensive line and defensive line from a pass-rush standpoint. Do those units hold the Patriots back? -- Jake M. (Vancouver, British Columbia)

A. I don't think there is any mystery when it comes to the Patriots' offensive line as being the key. We saw it in the last two Super Bowl losses as well -- when the line is shaky, it can paralyze the entire offense. I think they'll be better, in part because the expected return of left guard Dan Connolly (knee, neck, concussion) should help stabilize things after he's missed the final two games. On the pass rush, you'd always like more, but I'd put that one a little further down the list relative to the offensive line.

Q. Which AFC opponent presents the toughest potential matchup for the Patriots in the postseason? -- Keith (Reading, Massachusetts)

A. Keith, this is one of those years where I'd avoid the mindset of "team you don't want to face" and focus more on the Patriots. I feel like if they play their game, they should win any matchup. But to play along, I'd put Denver atop the list. If the teams meet in the AFC title game, I still see the Broncos as a tough team to beat.

Q. Why aren't we seeing more of Akeem Ayers? I know Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are ahead of him on the depth chart, but he seems just as capable of making plays. He showed up Sunday with a sack and it seems like a waste to keep such a productive player on the sidelines for most the game. Incorporating him into the game seems like a good way to keep all three players fresh and hungry. -- Cody P. (North Hampton, New Hampshire)

A. This is a coaching decision to ride exclusively with Ninkovich and Jones in the base defense at defensive end. In making that coaching decision, it has reduced Ayers to a designated pass-rushing role in sub packages the last two weeks, which is the situation in which Ayers was on the field when he earned that sack Sunday. There is a lot that goes into playing defensive end in this system, and the coaching staff obviously has a high comfort level with Ninkovich and Jones. Would they consider rotating Ayers in for a series or two each half in the base defense? I'd be surprised at this point, but I think a case could be made for giving it a look.

Q. Hi Mike, I'm trying to make sense of Tom Brady's salary restructure. Am I wrong or does it essentially add $1 million to Brady's cap hit from 2015-2017 while reducing the guaranteed money the Patriots would be liable for in the event they released Brady before the end of the contract? If this is true, do you think that Belichick is planning for this possibility? -- Gary (East Hanover, New Jersey)

A. Gary, because Brady's base salaries will increase by $1 million in 2015, 2016 and 2017, the cap numbers increase by $1 million in those years. The cap numbers are still very manageable for a player of Brady's caliber. As for the guaranteed money, the change to the contract makes it so the Patriots wouldn't be on the hook for the full $24 million if they released him for performance-based reasons before 2017. So Brady gives up leverage in that area, but I don't believe that is the team's intention in this situation.

Q. I'm having a hard time understanding why the Patriots would restructure Tom Brady's contract. Now, they can't just cut him even if they wanted to. The bad PR would be much worse since Brady has given the Patriots all this trust. His release if both sides wanted one would make sense, however. Still, I have a hard time believing that was a main motivating factor unless I have some pretty severe blinders on. My question to you is: Do you think that the Patriots are really short enough on cash flow to make it a primary motivation for the restructure? I thought that money grew on trees in Foxborough. -- Jim C. (Centennial, Colorado)

A. Jim, I don't think the Patriots are so short on cash flow that this restructure was necessary. But if the sides have a trust that has been built between them for 15 years, and if the business works for both sides, why not do it? Brady gets $3 million in the exchange, the team gets cash-flow flexibility, and it's a win-win. From a team perspective, if you gave me a choice to pay $24 million right now or $27 million over a three-year span, I'd pick the second option because it puts more cash in my hands right now to operate with and hopefully make good decisions to improve the team (which is important to Brady as well). That's a lot of money from a cash-flow standpoint.

Q. Mike, if Josh McDaniels takes a head-coaching job, who is in the mix to be the next offensive coordinator? -- Carol M. (Pelham)

A. Carol, tight ends coach Brian Daboll would presumably be the top in-house candidate to step into that role. The 49ers and Falcons have both requested permission to speak with McDaniels, as reported by ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, and I think those are two excellent jobs that McDaniels would be hard-pressed to turn down should they be offered to him.

Q. Mike, would the Patriots consider retaining both Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty after this season? Obviously the Pats aren't going to pay Revis $20 million next season, and market value for these two players combined is well over $20 million/year, accounting for a large chunk of the 2015 cap. Add in McCourty's and Brandon Browner's salaries and that is a lot of money tied up in the secondary, while the Pats have to be thinking about how they can lock up Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones after 2015. As much I want to see Revis finish his career as a Patriot, I don't see it happening. -- Adam (Broomfield, Colorado)

A. Adam, the hope is to retain both of them, and there is always the possibility of the franchise tag with McCourty if the sides can't agree on an extension. I think they can absorb the contracts, and it's not a major issue that a big chunk of the cap is tied up in the secondary because of the importance the secondary carries to the team's success. Let's see what the market dictates for Revis. That will ultimately dictate things and that's the great unknown right now.

Q. Hey Mike, let's get some fullback talk going. For most of the season I really liked how the Pats used James Develin in the power running game. He brings a physical edge that I think the offense really feeds off of. However, he has barely played in recent weeks (21 snaps since the Colts game). Do you know if this is simply a result of the Pats having a game-plan offense or is it more performance-related? -- Carl (Philly)

A. Carl, this has stood out to me as well. The Patriots haven't run a lot of two-back sets over the last six weeks of the season. Develin averaged 19 offensive snaps per game through the first 10 contests and then dipped to 3.5 snaps per game over the final six games. Develin's decline coincided with an increase in playing time for tight end Tim Wright, who averaged 14.8 offensive snaps through the first 10 games and has averaged 33.8 offensive snaps per game through the final six contests. A fullback and No. 2 tight end are often linked, so I think a good theory on this one is that the Patriots were integrating more of a pass-catching threat into their offense in the final six weeks with Wright and that affected Develin's usage.

Q. Mike, revisiting the Logan Mankins trade, the Patriots own the Buccaneers' fourth-round pick. With the Buccaneers earning the top pick in each round, is it safe to say that fourth-round pick has some added value because it's the first selection on the third day of the draft? -- John (Acton, Massachusetts)

A. Yes, John, that is fair to say. At the same time, I wouldn't overrate the value, and a good example was the 2011 draft when the Patriots had the top pick in the second round. We thought that pick would have great value, and it did generate some trade interest but not enough for the club to execute a deal. So they ended up using the pick on cornerback Ras-I Dowling. The main thing in situations like these is that the draft has a break overnight, teams reset and reorganize their board, and the break provides a little extra time for something to potentially unfold in terms of trade discussions.

Q. Hi Mike, I had a question about Vince Wilfork hitting his incentives. It seems like this is a case where there is an inherent conflict of interest between Bill the Coach and Bill the General Manager. Seeing Vince play all the way into the third quarter, it seemed hard to justify that personnel usage, other than giving him the chance to earn the money. Do you think this was the case of rewarding a guy for his work getting back and staying on the field? Do you think that there was concern that not letting him earn the bonus could poison the locker room (given that he is a leader on the team)? Or was there a football reason for playing him that much? -- Gus (Los Angeles)

A. Gus, I'd say that playing-time incentives create a conflict of interest between individual goals and team goals, regardless of those involved. It's why I'd generally avoid them whenever possible. As for the case of Wilfork, they could have sat him at halftime like they did with cornerback Darrelle Revis, linebacker Jamie Collins and safety Devin McCourty, and Wilfork still would have earned the incentive. So I don't think they played him into the second half just so he could earn the incentive.

Q. Mike, since you opened the door on your Sunday column by evaluating players after only one year, wouldn't you agree that the Patriots' 2014 first-round pick, Dominique Easley, contributed little or nothing to this year's squad? I kept reading about his terrific burst and quickness but never saw it translate to the field at all. Akeem Ayers had a much bigger impact than Easley. -- Matt (overseas)

A. Matt, Easley's body of work consisted of 270 defensive snaps, 11 tackles, 1 sack and 1 interception. I thought he showed up more as an edge-setter in the base defense than as an interior pass rusher, where I also expected to see more burst. Overall, I wouldn't classify those contributions as "nothing," but I think it's fair to say they didn't have the impact a team generally hopes for with its first-round pick at this point.

Q. Mike, I think you are getting carried away with the argument that Rob Gronkowski is the MVP of the team. The reality is, without Gronk the Pats still have a fighting chance to get to the Super Bowl. Just as they have nearly done the past two seasons with him on the sidelines. Without Brady, there are no Super Bowl aspirations. That is why Brady is the MVP of the team. -- Matt (New York City)

A. I respect the viewpoint, Matt. I'm not crazy about the idea that a vote for Gronkowski has to be viewed as a reflection of anything negative on Brady. A strong case can be made for Brady as well, and as we know football is the ultimate team game. I just feel like Gronkowski is the game-changer for this offense, and Bill Belichick's decision to sit him in the regular-season finale makes me think he sees it the same way too.

Q. Hi Mike, not that I think it will happen, but can you put a percentage on Matt Patricia going back to safeties or linebackers and bringing Rex Ryan in as the defensive coordinator? -- Daniel R. (Ohio)

A. Daniel, this is one of those "zero percent" situations. First, Rex Ryan has no interest in being a coordinator at this time. Second, Bill Belichick believes Matt Patricia is the right man for the job.

Q. I hear talk about how important left tackle Nate Solder is. To me, he has regressed. He gets beat and shows little athleticism of late. Who can take his place if he's out? Also, what happened to the screen play in the Pats' playbook against a team with a top pass rush? -- Sam F. (Gloucester, Massachusetts)

A. Sam, I think Solder would agree that his play hasn't been as consistent as it was last year. He's still quite athletic for a player of his size (6-foot-8, 320 pounds) and the traits that you're looking for are there; it's just about execution and technique. They have a couple of options to replace him, starting with moving Sebastian Vollmer to left tackle and having Marcus Cannon play on the right side. Or they can just slide Cannon into the left tackle spot. As for the screen pass, they tried it in the finale, but the Bills blew it up (Jimmy Garoppolo incomplete pass). So it's in the playbook but just not producing as desired.

Q. My sense from reading transcripts or watching the videos on the Patriots website is that Patriots players tend to be quite respectful in dealing with the media, even if they're very cautious in what they say. That's why I was taken aback at Marcus Cannon's comments and attitude on Sunday. Obviously Cannon had a very poor game. But what do you make of the contemptuous attitude toward the press that he displayed? Where could he have gotten the idea that this sort of behavior would reflect well on the organization? -- Mark P. (North Adams, Massachusetts)

A. Mark, I wasn't present for Cannon's remarks after the game, only having the chance to read them secondhand, which means I lack key context because I can't judge tone, etc. So I will share my thoughts on past media dealings with Cannon: He has seldom, if ever, seemed comfortable when the microphones are in front of him. I don't sense it's personal disdain for reporters as much as a lack of comfort and perhaps fear of saying the wrong thing (repercussions can be significant in Patriots culture).